The Place, London
September 29, 2016
Oliver Twist, a story we all know, or think we know, even if it is from Lionel Bart’s stage musical or Carol Reed’s film. In it, Fagin is seen as greedy, villainous, money-grabbing; maybe even based on real-life child stealer, Henry Murphy, who Dickens would certainly have read about in the newspapers.
“But it’s wrong,” the Artful Dodger tells us at the opening of Fagin’s Twist, in which Avant Garde artistic director Tony Adigun, writer Maxwell Golden and dramaturg Adam Peck invite us to consider the character further as they tell his story from workhouse to child gang master to his ultimate undoing and downfall. “This is what really happened,” says Dodger.
What follows is an entertaining evening of dance and theatre with considerable appeal. It holds the attention well. The use of regular monologues to the audience ensures everyone always knows what is going on without having to have a detailed programme note. The dance meanwhile slips between various hip hop styles (krumpin’, breakin’ and so on) and contemporary dance with ease. It is Dickens-lite, though, and while Adigun shows how Fagin came to be who he was, don’t expect anything in-depth, anything very dark or anything remotely sinister; it’s not there, which I can’t help feeling is a shame, an opportunity missed.
Act I takes us up to the arrival on the scene of Oliver. It’s essential a series of speeches and mostly ensemble hip hop dance sequences. Adigun creates great patterns and uses the space well, the ensemble sometimes splitting neatly into twos and threes before coming back together. It’s good stuff, although a bit like the big corps dances in ballet, doesn’t really add anything to character or story.
Once we get past the totally unnecessary spoken recap (think ‘Seen previously’ on mini-series), Act II takes us through Fagin’s downfall, and specifically Oliver’s part in it. As Oliver, Jemima Brown is initially vulnerable. It’s not a huge leap to Mark Lester in the film. But that’s not the real Oliver, points out Dodger, who observes that, “Only Sykes saw Oliver for what he was,” going on to note that under the outer innocence is someone all cunning and conniving. It’s just as well Dodger tells us as it’s not desperately clear in the dance.
The drawing of parallels between Fagin and Oliver is one of Adigun’s cleverest touches. In Act I, it’s Fagin as the new boy in the workhouse, the odd-one out, the one with dreams, who is eventually befriended by Sykes. In Act II, Oliver is seen in the same situation, and cared for by Nancy. The parallels continue to the very end and the biggest twist of all as the scheming Oliver takes Fagin’s crown.
For the most part though, Adigun rarely seems to do more that scrape the surface of the characters. He doesn’t make me care about them. While Aaron Nuttall’s Dodger has a believable cheeky-chappie, full of himself, confident attitude about him, only rarely is there any depth or darkness or grit about Sykes (Dani Harris-Walters) and Fagin (Joshua James-Smith). When it does come it’s very good though, notably in a tension-packed trio between Sykes, Nancy (nicely portrayed by Lisa Hood) and Oliver that takes place on and around two chairs and is one of the few places where Adigun feels confident enough to let the dance alone speak. Best, though is a speech by Fagin when he muses on life and asks “Why me?” and when we finally see just what a complex character he is.
Although I wish Adigun would have left the story to the dance more, the monologues do largely work well, conveying a few insights any dance might struggle with (the conversations between the characters are much less effective), although I’m less than convinced that using the odd line from the musical is really necessary. Sad too, even in a relatively small venue like The Place, the need was felt to mike everyone up, though. While the delivery was assured, I can’t help feeling that not having them miked might lead to it being more powerful. This particular venue also still suffers the weird effect of seeing the dancers’ mouths move below you, but most of the sound coming from high above.
Yann Seabra’s set of three moveable sections that are regularly shifted to form workhouse walls, bunkbeds, streets, Fagin’s den and more is very effective. Alongside it, Jackie Shemesh’s lighting is all shadows, helping to create all the necessary atmosphere and mood. The use of small props (a hat box, yellow handkerchiefs, a watch and chain) is well done, the dance flowing pretty seamlessly as they are passed or tossed from dancer to dancer (no easy task).
So to the music, a patchwork of pieces with occasional references to the film. It is extremely loud at times though, quite literally painfully so. Very loud music can add to the overall effect (think Hofesh Shechter and Political Mother for one). Here it has the opposite effect. It is sometimes so loud that it drowns the dance totally. Worst of all is one duet to a piano solo where the dance suggests all tenderness, but such is the volume, not only is the music dreadfully distorted, but it destroys totally what one presumes is the intended effect.
Finally, if going to The Place, do allow time to take a look at the excellent exhibition of Oliver Twist illustrations by George Cruickshank in the bar.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes including a 25-minute interval.